Nigel, aka Blackie, is the protagonist in two novels, The Apprenticeship of Nigel Blackthorn and A Message to Santa Fe. Nigel is the youngest child of a Methodist minister’s family. Nigel’s father brought his family to the States to proselytize the “heathen” Native American peoples. The Blackthorn family came unprepared and naive about their challenges in the western prairie. In the first novel, Native American warriors slaughter the Blackthorn family at their first meeting. Twelve year-old Nigel survives because his mother hid him in the bole of a tree. This hiding spot allowed him to witness the rape and murder of his mother and older sisters. Their savagery had a profound effect on Nigel’s psyche that left him unforgiving and jaded. Nigel hates Comanches for killing his beloved mother; his sense of abandonment leads to an Oedipus complex.
In the Apprenticeship, Pascal LeBrun, a defrocked priest who leads a mule train, finds Nigel on the prairie. Pascal is a hard taskmaster; spoiled, lazy, pudgy Nigel thinks Pascal is cruel. A Jesuit scholar, Pascal sets about to teach French and Spanish (and the basics of math history and geography) to Nigel because few of Pascal’s business associates speak English, which is a language Pascal disdains. Pascal thinks “Nigel” is a Nancy-boy’s name; he nicknames the lad Noir for the dark time (deaths) in which he found Nigel. Under Pascal’s strict tutelage, Noir becomes a man of the prairie, a skilled hunter and tracker, and the scout for the mule train when he matures in the late teens. In this period, Noir anglicizes his name to Blackie. The Apprenticeship revolves around Pascal’s lessons and his discipline leading to Blackie’s growth.
A Message to Santa Fe begins with Texas in turmoil over secession with war imminent. Pascal has become a successful merchant with a firm in Havana. He offers to promote Blackie to a partner at the end of his apprenticeship upon the successful completion of one more assignment. Blackie is to escort a wagon train to El Paso, and “oh yes, before you return, take a message to Santa Fe.” (A trek of 320 miles, after travelling 700 miles to El Paso.) What seemed like a simple task becomes a gauntlet of passage. The journey to Santa Fe becomes an allegory for Blackie’s journey to a responsible adult.
Blackie must use all the skills he learned as an apprentice on the great western prairie to survive encounters with bandits, swindlers, Spanish nobility, and the hated Comanche. Blackie strugglers with his emotions for young women; his early sexual encounters were with widowed women (fulfilling his desire to love his departed mother?). He begins to see his idealized version of his mother/lover is the source of his confusion, but soon finds himself manipulated by a willful and seductive Spanish heiress.
Pascal has cautioned Blackie that life is not simply black or white, good or evil, right or wrong. What appeared “right” in the beginning often changes with time and shadows of gray often color events until Blackie learns to forgive; he hopes to become less judgmental of others.
The novel The Apprenticeship of Nigel Blackthorn is really Pascal’s story. Pascal doesn’t appear in A Message to Santa Fe, but he is a strong presence in everything Blackie does, or fails to do. The question is always in the back of Blackie’s mind, “What would Pascal do?”
Pascal’s story begins in France after the Revolution, in which his aristocratic family spent at their vineyards in the south of Spain—they lost their titles but not their heads. The family left Spain during the Napoleon’s Iberian Campaign and returned to Paris. The sojourn in Spain led to Pascal’s fluency in both French and Spanish. It also allowed his acceptance into upper ranks of both cultures. As the third son, he expected to have a military career, but the first son died in his teens and the order shuffled. The second son, Henri, became the heir. The family sent Pascal, now a teen, to the Catholic Church, as expected by custom.
Pascal and his childhood companion, LaFleur de A’Lune were tutored together; both were precocious, charming and devil-may-care. (LaFleur is the son of the Steward of the Vineyards, who managed the vast vineyard holdings in France, Spain and Italy—the source of the LeBrun family’s wealth.)
After a wild and carefree youth, Pascal found the Jesuit discipline a needed change during his later teen years. A high-ranking Vatican cardinal thought Pascal had greater things in his future and requested Pascal’s assignment to Rome. Pascal, with a large stipend from his family, convinced the cardinal to send him to the Holy Land. His tour lasted five years as he extended it to include the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, India, and China before returning to Rome. During that period, he traveled in mufti and freely sampled “a life of sin.”
Upon his return to Rome, he requested a sabbatical to write his account of the Holy Land. To gain seclusion he rented a villa in Pescara on the Adriatic coast. He traveled to Rome frequently, always stopping in the mountain village of Popoli. He used his Vatican connections to stay at the villa of the richest merchant in the area. The merchant traveled often, leaving his young second wife and slightly younger daughter alone. The women were jealous of each other and vied for the attention of the two worldly travelers. If Pascal entertained the villa’s matron, then LaFleur entertained the daughter, or vice versa. Finally, the husband became suspicious and snuck into his villa one night, expecting to find Pascal in his wife’s bed, but he caught LaFleur instead. The toughs he hired held LaFleur while the merchant cut off LaFleur’s tongue in preparation for cutting much lower. Pascal arrived with toughs from a nearby tavern to save further damage. Unfortunately, the merchant died in the melee, resulting in Pascal’s banishment from Rome. His accepted his punishment, for he was truly remorseful over LaFleur’s loss and disfigurement.
The Jesuits sent Pascal to a village in southern France to serve as the parish priest and schoolteacher. LaFleur returned to the LeBrun vineyards and studied under his father to become a vintner. Pascal behaved and 6 years passed slowly for the two old friends, now separated. Pascal met with the mothers of the schoolchildren; unfortunately, one thing led to another. Soon, a wealthy landowner petitioned the Pope to have Pascal defrocked and excommunicated. The family’s influence delayed the action. Meanwhile, the Jesuits gave Pascal one last chance (His family’s money may have passed to church charities?) and the Jesuits sent Pascal on a mission to French Canada to proselytize to the heathen American Indians in western Canada.
As Pascal waited on the dock for his ship to board, shouting drew his attention. A figure ran down the wharf pushing a cart full of wine and spirits—LaFleur came to join him in his exile.
LaFleur de A’lune
LaFleur de A’lune is the legitimate son of the Stewart of the Vineyards, who managed the vast vineyard holdings in France, Spain, and Italy—the source of the family’s wealth. As with Pascal, LaFleur appears only in The Apprenticeship of Nigel Blackthorn.
LaFleur is unable to speak normal words after they cut off his tongue in the debacle in Italy. He makes funny sounds, and acts the clown to break the tension of Pascal’s domineering style. When he wants to “say” something, he carries a slate and chalk and writes short messages. When Pascal and he find Nigel orphaned, something in Pascal changes, he wants more than to wander the prairie guiding a mule train to make a few dollars. Making money becomes important to Pascal, but LaFleur doesn’t understand the change. Pascal arranges to buy land downriver from El Paso and creates a horse and mule rancho. The rancho provides the mules and Pascal soon expands into wagon freighting, which becomes successful. Pascal allows LaFleur to plant a vineyard and grow a local variety of grapes. He is still a vintner at heart. (Note: Paso Wine made in the mountains around El Paso was well known and popular in the southwest US and Mexico).
LaFleur is a source of understanding and condolence for young Blackie—he is the “ying” to Pascal’s bombastic “yang.” In A Message to Santa Fe, Blackie reminisces, recalling the only thing that he and Pascal ever agreed upon—LaFleur should have been the priest, not Pascal.
In The Apprenticeship, LaFleur seeks to soften Pascal’s hard edge; he tries to get the spoiled English “city boy” to understand that the western prairie is dangerous—wild Indians and bandits, fierce animals, deadly snakes, and weather extremes, from dry deserts to raging snowstorms. He wants Nigel to understand his careless mistakes could cost all of them their lives.
As time passes, a tall, lean, strong Blackie emerges; he becomes the head scout and trouble-shooter for the wagon freighting business. He has Pascal’s hard edge; he is unforgiving because Pascal tells him the prairie is unforgiving and will kill him if he loses his edge or gets lazy. LaFleur encourages young Blackie to forgive the Comanche for his family’s death and to forego revenge. He counsels that seeking revenge will make Blackie cruel and bitter and says “Your mother’s message not to look back on this” didn’t mean don’t watch what happens to her, but don’t let what happened to her destroy your life.”
In a deadly trap, a Comanche war party almost overruns the mule train. LaFleur panics and freezes. Blackie stands over him fighting with knife and gun to blunt the fierce attack. Blackie slaps LaFleur, yelling, “if you can’t fight, at least reload, while I kill these bastards.” The action shook LaFleur and a subsequent fight aboard a ship sailing for Vera Cruz is even bloodier. LaFleur believes Pascal and he have turned Blackie into a hardened killer. LaFleur writes to Pascal and Blackie: “In the beginning, we wandered the prairie. We didn’t fight with the natives, but now you fight at every opportunity. They are not our enemy—we should not kill them.”
When Pascal seals a deal to create a lucrative merchandising firm in Havana, Cuba, LaFleur asks to step aside and reside in French-speaking Haiti. He wants to manage Pascal’s growing trade in spirits (Haitian Rum and Wine from France). LaFleur tells Pascal he never wants to return to the prairie. The partnership of forty years ends quietly as Pascal fails to understand his friend’s concern. Likewise, LaFleur fails to comprehend Pascal’s drive to make money.
Catherine O’Connor made the most of her “walk-on-role” in A Message to Santa Fe. I intended her role to foreshadow Blackie’s Oedipus Complex, which leads him to shun younger women in favor of women in his mother’s image; i.e., older married or widowed women. Given what happened to Catherine, readers might expect Blackie to reject Consuela out of hand as too young, too spoiled.
Catherine describes herself in the text. She is beautiful, but resents men’s foolish flattery and fawning attention. I originally included a rivalry between Blackie and Jason, the foreman at the Spalding ranch. There was a fight scene that started with a drunken Gene and Jason in the Star saloon, but I removed it because it didn’t advance the story. (a stereotypical western bar fight.)
I have written (but not published) a novella called The Spinster’s Tale about Catherine’s version of her meeting with Blackie and their subsequent “separation.” As you might expect it is quite different than Blackie’s version.
In the Tale, the Spalding foreman, Jason, works up the nerve to court Catherine. After he disappointment with Blackie, she panics and thinks she’ll never marry. She considers Jason for a few days, before she rejects him after he decides to join the Confederate Cavalry with Gene Spalding, instead of marrying her and going to San Francisco. The Spalding Ranch men go defend the Gulf Coast as the Union begins its blockade. Gene Spalding gets wounded and Julianna asks Catherine to come with her to tend the wounded. Catherine meets Blackie again in Corpus Christi, but even as they long for one another, they fight.
Catherine tends to a Union Navy officer, Victor, captured when his ship ran aground on Padre Island. She falls in love and escorts Victor to Havana (which Blackie arranged) on parole in agreement not to fight again. She sails to Boston with him after the surgeons in Havana amputate his infected left foot. His family rejects her as “an Irish washer woman, little better than a camp follower,” after she and Victor arrive in Boston with Catherine pregnant. All of Victor’s dashing charm disappeared with his amputation and, deeply depressed, he fails to stand-up to his family or to reassure Catherine. She leaves Boston trying to return to Texas, but the war interferes with her travel. The baby dies during a cold winter in Cincinnati while she works to raise funds to return to Texas. After the war, when train service exists, she reaches San Francisco and opens her bookstore. Her great beauty remains but she has become cold and bitter.
Catherine and Blackie never meet again.
Señorita Consuela Maria Inez Navarre is the primary romantic interest in the novel A Message to Santa Fe. She is the youngest child of a Spanish Grandee whose family has a land grant from the King of Spain for a vast holding in the upper Rio Grande in southern Colorado known as the San Luis Valley. Don Joaquin Navarre has an expansive residence in Mexico City and a large villa in Taos. He and his family spend six months in Taos/San Luis and a month traveling each way to Mexico City. The Don thinks Mexico City is too hot, too dirty and has too many undisciplined peons; therefore, he finds the climate and solitude of the San Luis valley a refreshing change from Mexico City.
Consuela is, by any definition, a spoiled, rotten bitch. Her father tired of her willful and petulant behavior. He sent to the Ursuline convent in New Orleans when she turned thirteen. The Sisters failed to break her spirit or bridle her mouth. When the family selects the proper suitor, they arrange the marriage. Don Joaquin announces the planned wedding in Santa Fe, a concession to those from Mexico City (instead of making them travel another 200 miles to the San Luis Valley.)
Blackie meets Consuela in San Antonio, where her uncle, Don Felipe Navarre, escort from the convent to Santa Fe for her wedding to a man she has yet to meet. Blackie observes her rude and petulant behavior and thinks, “I’m lucky she is another man’s problem.” However, when he learns Don Felipe plans to travel to Santa Fe with a dozen Andalusian mares and a prized stallion, he feels honor bound to warn him about the Comanche. Arrogant and naive, Don Felipe rejects Blackie’s offer to ride with his well-armed wagon train.
It wouldn’t be a story if Blackie didn’t attempt to rescue her after the Comanche attack in west Texas, near the Head of Concho Stagecoach station. Blackie uses every trick he learned as a scout and still the Comanche pursue, picking them off one by one, until only Blackie and Consuela remain, on foot after losing their last horse.
Consuela and Blackie walk across the Llano Estacado high plateau before reaching safety near the Bosque Redondo in New Mexico. She seduces Blackie with her beauty and he seeks her father’s permission to set aside the Spanish wedding contract and let him marry Consuela. Don Joaquin rejects Blackie out of hand – a contract is a contract.
Both Dan Joaquin and Consuela are schemers and each tries to top the other. Blackie almost becomes an unwitting pawn, before he recognizes she played him like a violin. At this point, he leaves Consuela (pregnant) to marry the hidalgo and return to Spain with her new husband.
Do not despair for Consuela—she continues to scheme. In the next novel, Viva Juarez, she appears with her husband as the emissary from the Spanish court and spoils Blackie’s undercover role in the court of Maximilian where he spies for Juarez or have all Pascal’s and his holdings in Mexico confiscated by Juarez.
The Blackthorn Family
The story of the Blackthorn family’s travel to the United States and their subsequent death is in the novel The Apprenticeship of Nigel Blackthorn.
John Blackthorn was a fire and brimstone preacher. He frightened most church members with his unforgiving attitude toward sin. The Methodist Congress assigned John a small church in rural Wales. The small coal mining community had few resources and little money to support their minister. “Poor as a church mouse” was coined to describe his ministry. A visit by a missionary from the new world inspired John to apply to the American Board of Missions for a missionary position in the colonies. The defeat of Mexico in the 1847-48 war led to the end of enforced Catholicism in the southwest US. The Methodist Mission Board saw this as an opportunity to proselytize both Mexican and Native Americans in the vast western region. The original plan actually sent missionary’s already in the Hawaiian Islands to the Columbia River, then up to the Snake River to Fort Boise. The Methodist Mission Board soon learned to send its Missionaries over the same trails as other pioneers—the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail.
By the time John and his family had reached Westport Landing in Missouri, the Mission Board asked him to serve converted Indians in the territories. (Obviously, the Methodist Board was not good at geography.) The request suggested John’s family travel to Fort Smith, AR and go west into Cherokee land. The Cherokee were peaceful, many were already Christians, but lacked a minister. The Board’s message went from Ft. Smith to Boston to Westport Landing. Somehow, the Mission Board ordered the Blackthorn family to Fort Adobe (a trading post) in the Texas panhandle near the Indian territories. The Mission Board compounded their error by hiring an inexperienced guide who led the family into hostile Comanche territory. As Blackie reports in the novel, Comanches killed his father before he preached one word of Christ’s salvation.
Elsbet Blackthorn ruled the family outside the church. She taught school for the parishioners. She solicited donations of food and grew a large garden to feed her three children. She organized the choir practice, for the Welsh loved to sing. The idea of an annual stipend, their own house and land, a milk cow and a horse (as promised by the Mission Board) motivated Elsbet to pack her family and follow her ne’r-do-well husband to the American colonies.
In the novel The Apprenticeship of Nigel Blackthorn, Elsbet’s only role was to save Nigel. She warned him not to watch her rape and murder. Her last words were “Do not look back, ever.” An idealized Elsbet appears in Blackie’s memories, but little of her strong personality is present past the opening pages.
Blackie, at age 20, still has nightmares of his mother death. (PTSD?) He believes he failed his mother by not saving her from the attack; that he was a coward and hid rather than save her. This type of irrational guilt, particularly in youngsters, often affects their entire life.
Georgianna (age 16) and Eugenia (age14) are viewed only through young Nigel’s image of his older sisters. Their presence in the narrative is quite brief, but Nigel/Blackie remembers them fondly in both novels.